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Mental health: how to avoid emotional exhaustion as coronavirus cases surge

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Lauren Geall
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Feeling emotionally overwhelmed by the sudden surge in coronavirus cases? You’re not alone. Here, an expert explains how to cope with the ongoing emotional strain of the pandemic.

A lot has changed in a week, hasn’t it? Just when we dared to dream of a semi-normal Christmas spent regressing to our teenage selves and eating endless plates of festive food, the arrival of the Omicron variant has thrown everything into doubt.

Now, instead of making plans for Christmas parties and booking train tickets home, we’re having to second guess our actions – weighing up whether or not it’s ‘safe’ to go out and risk catching Covid-19 so close to the big day. That is, if you haven’t already spent the week self-isolating after testing positive or anxiously awaiting the results of a PCR test.

For what feels like the millionth time, we’ve found ourselves at the centre of an incredibly stressful and anxiety-inducing situation – and it’s taking its toll on us all. 

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“I feel like I’ve been living in the ‘just a few more months’ mentality for over a year now, and it’s wreaking havoc with my emotional wellbeing,” Stylist’s digital writer Amy Beecham says. “The hardest part is the ever-changing goal posts – it’s like I’m back in December 2020 all over again. After two lockdown birthdays, cancelled holidays and so much time missed with my family, I’m finding it harder and harder to keep the faith and not get bogged down.”

Alex Sims, Stylist’s acting digital commissioning editor, shares a similar sentiment. “There’s a sense in London at the moment that it’s not a matter of if we catch covid, but when, and having that feeling constantly on my mind is mentally draining.

“The change in atmosphere has happened so fast – just a matter of days ago I was still planning to go to Christmas parties, meet my friends at the pub and travel across the country for Christmas with no issues. But now it feels like everything has crumbled so rapidly. It’s such a lot to comprehend and every time I try, I just feel completely worn out.” 

She continues: “The sense of fatigue isn’t helped by the horrible deja vu. My partner works in hospitality and I remember him coming home from work in March 2020 completely dazed because the restaurant he works at had just closed down with no financial compensation at the time. Seeing all these restaurants, pubs and bars closing of their own accord rather than due to government restrictions just feels like we’re back at the same place as where we were nearly two years ago. It feels like we’re just stuck.”

These feelings are not isolated, either. You only need to take a quick scroll through Twitter to get a sense of the emotional turmoil many people are feeling right now – especially as there’s no sign of things getting better anytime soon. Once again, the coronavirus pandemic is wreaking havoc with our emotions, leaving us at risk of becoming emotionally exhausted. 

A woman feeling stressed
Are you feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope with all the coronavirus updates? You could be experiencing emotional exhaustion.

“We’re much better at understanding exhaustion in terms of physical effort and effects than emotional ones. However, mental or emotional activities and outputs also have an impact on our health,” chartered psychologist and author Dr Meg Arroll explains.

“Just as we wouldn’t exercise hour after hour without a break, we shouldn’t expend emotional energy without respite. Therefore, we must give our emotional muscles rest too so that they can repair, by first becoming more aware of all the emotional work we do on a daily basis, including consuming the news.”

If you’re feeling a lot of anxiety, and find yourself feeling overwhelmed throughout the day, chances are you’re not giving your “emotional muscles” sufficient time to rest – and therefore causing yourself to feel emotionally exhausted. 

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Defined as “a state of feeling emotionally worn-out and drained as a result of accumulated stress from your personal or work lives,” emotional exhaustion is one of the signs of burnout.

According to Healthline, symptoms of emotional exhaustion include, but are not limited to:

  • Lack of motivation
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Irritability
  • Physical fatigue
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Absentmindedness
  • Apathy
  • Headaches
  • Nervousness
  • A change in appetite
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irrational anger
  • Increased cynicism or pessimism
  • A sense of dread
  • Depression

During the pandemic, one of the main reasons why so many of us are experiencing emotional exhaustion is our constant exposure to the news. 

In this way, while staying informed is obviously important, we also need to make sure we’re taking time away from all the stressful headlines and social media commentary to give ourselves a much-needed break – especially during the Christmas period, when we’re supposed to be recharging ahead of the new year.

A woman looking out the window
One of the prime factors driving emotional exhaustion during the pandemic has been our constant exposure to the news.

“Reading the news can make us emotionally exhausted because headlines are devised specifically to trigger an emotive response,” Dr Arroll explains. “This emotive response is often fear, so the mind and body are likely to go into fight-or-flight mode, with the associated physiological processes that come with it.

“Without a break from this we cannot go back to a state or equilibrium and may reach a point of allostatic overload, wherein we’ve used all of our resources and are ‘in the red’ as it were – this is the point where symptoms start to appear such as fatigue, headaches, sleeping difficulties and cognitive problems.”

As emotional exhaustion is one of the symptoms of burnout, it’s important to try and manage any signs of it as soon as possible. Crying, for example, could be a sign that you need to take a step back from reality and take some time for yourself, whether that’s via self-care, distraction or mindfulness meditation (allowing yourself to have a good cry can also help to release tension and help you feel better). 

And if the news and/or social media is contributing to your anxiety in a large way, Dr Arroll recommends gradually building healthy news habits.

“In clinic, I wean individuals off news outlets and apps with a detox plan by first asking them to turn off all notifications, then to choose just one trusted source of news,” she explains. “Next, we set specific times to check the news (usually only once in the morning and evening) and to watch news with others so it can be discussed, rather than in isolation where repetitive and ruminative thoughts can go unchecked.

“Focus on the facts, rather than rumours, from trusted sources such as the WHO website and/or local health authorities.”

While there’s nothing we can do about the current situation, it’s clear that changing the way you digest the news – and taking steps to protect yourself and your mental health – can make a big difference to how you feel overall.

It may not seem like a big deal, but simple things like setting boundaries, switching off notifications and taking the night off from scrolling all add up – even if it may not feel like it at first. 

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health or emotional wellbeing, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’ guide to local mental health helplines and organisations here.

If you are struggling, you can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.

You can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org for confidential support.

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.

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